Eugene Weekly : Theater : 9.17.2009


The Season for Autumnal
Classic of loneliness and longing at Cottage Theatre
by Suzi Steffen

The aching, awful longing to mean something, to someone, somewhere — or to mean something to more than one other person; to have a life that doesn’t wind down without notice, die out like a few words flung on a stage, an afterthought of a minor character: Where’s the plot; where’s the meaning? And who writes our lives, anyway?

Guildenstern (Eliza Roaring Springs) and Rosencrantz (Nikki Pagniano) are alive, still, in this photo

Playwrights and authors gorge on this subject, sometimes to the distraction of audiences. I don’t think writers can help it; we want to investigate control, and lack of it, over characters and over life. In recent years, there are the new version of Don Quixote at Ashland; Chris Wooding’s Poison; China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun; Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger; and of course Charlie Kaufman’s too-clever Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York. Who’s writing this script we’re acting out each day, each year?

In the Cottage Theatre’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, we hear the cries of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who want more control, more understanding. But they’re buffeted, like Don Quixote, by their writer — or rather their writers. Shakespeare barely regarded them; they pop into the play as Hamlet’s childhood buddies to do the bidding of Claudius, who wants them to figure out what the hell is going on with his nephew. Hamlet sees that they are the king’s puppets. He cares for their lives as little as Claudius does, and, in (briefly) saving his own skin, he betrays them.

No surprise there; anyone who’s read or seen Hamlet knows that much (Hint: You might want to bone up on your Hamlet before you go to R&G). So what does Tom Stoppard do with these guys? Where did they come from; where are they going; what’s their purpose other than bit players in Hamlet’s life? We don’t know because they don’t know — part of Stoppard’s exploration of loneliness and deracination.

Rosencrantz (the quite good, obviously theater-trained Nikki Pagniano) isn’t thoughtful, doesn’t analyze the world but enjoys his time with his friend Guildenstern and wants to make G. happy. Guildenstern (Eliza Roaring Springs) thinks a lot and analyzes everything, and very little, even R., makes him happy. In direct reference to Waiting for Godot, the two can’t leave the stage, and they wait for other people to make their meaning for them — with disastrous consequences.

Well, that’s kind of the way life offstage works too. Waiting for others to make our meaning, tell us what to do or how to figure out to deal with life, rarely works out well. On the other hand, maybe we don’t have free will; certainly, R. & G. don’t have much. That’s playfully and painfully revealed in the opening of the play (a scene that director Tony Rust needs to help his actors seriously speed up) But when the men have a choice, when they open a letter they should not have opened, their willful helplessness leads to the title of the play. 

Rust, Marist’s drama teacher and the director of last year’s strong Streetcar Named Desire, can’t get his actors over a common hurdle for this play: It’s too slow. Even Stoppard, who directed a movie version, fell down his play’s molasses-filled rabbit hole. (The play’s a joy to read, and for the actors, a joyful challenge to perform, like most Stoppard plays — but it’s got a lot of words, and I heard several audience members say, “I’m so confused!” at the two intermissions.)

Few of the non-leads show much skill (though Ruth Townsend isn’t bad as Gertrude), and that slows the play down even more. The third main character is the Player, who’s like an amalgamation of Stoppard, Shakespeare and an amateur pornographer. Anna Sheehan performs this role with energy but also with too much knowledge that she’s onstage, playing a part. That might improve as the run continues this weekend.

What changes with three women playing three male leads? I’d love to hear from the director and the actors what they think is different, if anything. The tragedians’ quasi-rape scenes don’t work as well, I think, and those punches are pulled all the more because the young male victim is played by Rust’s son.

But, like Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, which showed the deep love between Horatio and Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead skillfully and tenderly points out that even when we can’t control our destinies, we can and must find consolation in our friends and partners. Rosencrantz’s consistent sweetness at least offers that one relief. Hell is other people, but they’re also the only hope — to mean something, to be loved, possibly to be remembered. And so, though Stoppard is cruel to his characters, he also performs a great kindness to these bit players by conferring on them a glimmering sliver of immortality. 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead continues through Sept. 19 at the Cottage Theatre. or 942-8001 for tix.